inside the prison, Nat and Angus produced ID, left her coat in a
locker, and were ushered through three sets of locked, barred
doors, called sally ports. Bulletproof glass covered the bars,
which were painted the same cherry red as the entrance. They
checked in at the command center and were funneled together through
a metal detector and cattle chute to a final set of locked doors,
which a female C.O. unlocked and pulled open, greeting Angus with
an attitudinal smirk.
"Yo, Holt. Nice suit." The C.O. an African American, had large
brown eyes and looked fit and trim in her navy blue uniform. A
strand of dark hair curled like a shiny fishhook in front of her
ears. "News flash. Jerry Garcia's dead."
"That never gets old." Angus grinned. "Tanisa Shields, meet my
colleague, Natalie Greco."
"Hiya." Tanisa shook Nat's hand, but her gaze didn't leave Angus.
"Take a lesson, Holt. This girl knows how to dress."
"But I'm wearing my lucky sweater," Angus said.
Tanisa snorted. "Yeah. Lucky I don't set it on fire."
Nat stayed happily out of the fray. She'd changed her clothes five
times this morning, mentally going from nun's habit to pup tent to
down comforter. She'd finally settled on a brown tweed pantsuit,
white tailored shirt, and a Herms scarf in granny pastels. Hank
would have approved of the outfit, but he'd left for work early and
never got to see it, or to hear that she'd be at a prison today.
That, he might not have approved.
"You gotta lose that beard, too." Tanisa clucked. "Looks like you
got a damn dog stuck to your chin." She slammed the bars
shut behind the three of them with a ringing clang, then
locked the door with a large, crude key.
"I love a woman in uniform," Angus said, but Nat wasn't
I'm locked inside.
Tanisa turned on the rubber heel of her patent work shoe and led
them into a wide hallway that appeared to run the length of the
building, presumably the body of the T. A black male C.O. stood
against the wall, and he acknowledged Angus with a nod. The lower
half of the wall was mint green cinderblock, and the top half
bulletproof glass, which exposed the inside of the rooms that lined
the hallway. A floor of polished concrete shone dully, and the air
felt hot and dry, overheated.
"Stop right there." Tanisa stiffened her arm, holding them back,
and Nat felt herself tense. A line of red light bulbs protruding
from the ceiling and had all flashed on suddenly.
"What's going on?" Nat asked.
Angus turned. "At the end of the hall are the residential pods, and
whenever the C.O.s move the inmates across the hallway, the red
lights go on. Wait a sec."
"Okay." Nat exchanged looks with the male C.O., who gave her a
reassuring wink. In the next minute, inmates in white T-shirts and
loose blue pants shuffled as a group from one side of the hall to
the other, talking and laughing. Even though they were far away, a
few spotted Angus and waved to him, and he waved back.
"My kids," he said softly.
Tanisa chuckled. "Then you need a new family."
Angus said to Nat, "It's only in the movies that a prison eats and
exercises together. Inmates live, eat, and exercise in the same
pod, which is corrections-speak for cellblock. That's why they're
remodeling this facility, to build new pods."
Nat nodded. The inmates kept crossing the hall, the red warning
Angus continued. "They keep movement between pods to an absolute
minimum and break up gang members among the pods. Here it's mostly
Hispanic gangs, then Aryans and African Americans."
"I didn't know there were that many Hispanics in Chester County."
Nat had always thought it was whiter than white out here, but she
could see from the moving stream of inmates that her demographics
had been wrong.
"They come up from Mexico to work on the mushroom farms and fancy
horse farms. Some are gangbangers. It's East L.A. come to Chester
County." Angus patted her shoulder. "Don't worry. The gangbangers
live in RHU, the rehabilitation unit farther down the hall, far
from our classroom."
"That's the processing room, where they handle intake and paperwork
for the inmates." Angus pointed to the left, near them. "Here's our
classroom, next to it is the infirmary, and behind that extra pods,
temporarily converted to infirmary space. They're short some
"This gonna be on the test?" Tanisa asked, and Angus smiled.
"How's your son, by the way?"
"Better, thanks." Tanisa turned away, lowering her arm as the
stream of inmates ceased and the bars were locked behind them. The
red lights blinked off. "Okay, time to make the doughnuts."
"This way, Natalie," Angus said, and they walked a few steps and
entered an empty room off the hallway, its bottom half cinderblock
painted white and its top the bulletproof glass. Bucket chairs in
white plastic sat scattered around a white Formica table, and on
the wall hung a greaseboard. On the board, ACTIONS was scribbled in
black Sharpie, with an arrow leading to CONSEQUENCES. It seemed so
clichŽd that if Nat hadn't seen it, she never would have
"I'll go get 'em." Tanisa turned, leaving the door open. "Be right
"The heat's good, at least," Nat said after the C.O. was gone, just
for something to say. The air in the room was hotter than the
hallway, bringing up the smell of institutional disinfectant and
body odor. She understood now why the inmates wore only undershirts
and she instantly regretted her wool suit. Tweed was so
"It's because of the construction. Excuse me a sec." Angus took off
his fisherman's sweater, yanking it over his head until his
ponytail popped free. He tossed the sweater, inside out, onto the
table. "Parts of the building are open, and the cold air gets in,
so the thermostat overcompensates. It's been like this all
"Tanisa will guard us during class, right?" Nat asked, but just
then inmates began to file in through the open door—about
fifteen men in T-shirts and blue scrub pants, worn with a variety
of nondescript cotton sneakers. All shapes, colors, and sizes were
represented; inmates had mustaches, plastic glasses, neck tattoos,
and a gold chain or two, but they were all about the same age
range, in their thirties.
"Good morning, gentlemen," Angus said with a smile, stepping to the
head of the table. "How you all been?"
"Fine," answered a thin inmate, taking the first chair. The other
inmates answered "good" and "good to see ya" with obvious warmth as
they walked around the table and settled into their seats.
"See y'all," Tanisa said, then left, and no other C.O. came to
replace her, which was when Nat got her answer.
Yikes! She and Angus were going to be unguarded, and the inmates
weren't wearing handcuffs. Again, if she weren't living it, she
wouldn't believe it was done this way. Angus rolled up the sleeves
of his workshirt, and Nat held her papers to her chest, sweating
through two layers of clothes and one security blanket. She avoided
eye contact with the inmates, who seemed to look away from her,
too, their heads down and manner subdued, like a class that hasn't
done the reading. Ever, in their whole life.
Angus rubbed his hands together. "Gentlemen, I thought we'd do
something different today, because by now you most definitely need
a break from the Personal Choices lecture."
They all chuckled, and Nat braced herself to get started.
"This is Professor Natalie Greco, and she teaches a class called
The History of Justice, in which she talks about law and justice.
Is that something you gentlemen have any views on?"
"Hell, yes!" called out a heavy inmate, and they all
"Good. Now, before we get started, I see two new folks in the
group." Angus gestured toward the end of the table, where two
inmates sat, one burly and tattooed, and the other, slimmer and
wearing glasses held together with Scotch tape. "I'm sorry, do I
know you two?"
"Kyle Buford," answered the burly inmate. Crude blue tattoos
blanketed his overdeveloped biceps.
"Pat Donnell," said the one with the broken glasses.
Angus frowned slightly. "Who admitted you gentlemen to the class? I
don't remember getting your files."
"I dunno," Buford answered, and Donnell nodded. "They just told us
to come and start today. I guess we were next on the list."
"I'll look into that, but welcome. Please, everybody, go around the
table and tell Professor Greco your name. We'll make like summer
camp, only it ain't summer and it sure as hell ain't camp."
The inmates laughed again and introduced themselves to Nat one by
one, which put her more at ease. Their names, their voices, and
their smiles transformed them from anonymous inmates to people, and
it perked them up, too. Their aspect seemed collectively to change,
eyes brightening and chins up, and they shifted forward in their
seats, as if they'd reclaimed their identity. She remembered Angus
saying that he treated the inmates as individuals, and she could
see the effect of this.
"I almost forgot. Before we start, some old business. Remember we
spoke last week about the staph infection issue?" Angus paused, and
heads nodded. "I wrote the warden a letter, and he says there will
be no transfers because of MSRA."
"Come on, bro!" an inmate said, scowling, and the other inmates
started grumbling. One called out, "You can die from that
"Sorry, but that's the best I can do." Angus held up an
authoritative hand in his loose workshirt, its baggy elbows thinned
to a soft, washed blue. "MSRA is a common bacterial infection in
prisons. Also in hospitals and schools, by the way. They're not
gonna start transferring your ass outta here. This is the newest
prison in the county. None of them is as clean as this one."
"That's 'cause they got me cleanin' it," a younger inmate
called out, a gold crucifix looping his neck. Everybody laughed,
Angus continued. "Allegheny County is where those two guys died,
and you're better off here. Wash your hands as much as you can. The
warden did agree that anybody with an open cut has an expedited
pass to the infirmary. Just let one of the C.O.'s know."
"How much we owe you, mouthpiece?" the inmate with the crucifix
asked, and everybody laughed.
"Nothing, and please, don't shake my hand." Angus shoved his hands
in his pockets, and they all laughed again, including the skinny
inmate in the front, who raised his arm cautiously.
"Can I ask a question, Angus?"
"Isn't Damian coming today?" The inmate was so thin, the bones of
his sternum showed through the V-neck of his undershirt. "I wrote
up some facts for my petition. He said he wanted it."
"No, sorry. Damian's sick. Give it to me and I'll make sure he gets
it." Angus picked up the brown folder that the inmate slid across
the table, opened it, and skimmed some papers, typed in
old-fashioned Courier font. "Looks good, Jim. Great job. You had a
public defender at trial, right?"
"He had a pubic defender!" interrupted Buford, the tattooed
Yuck. Nat stiffened.
Angus looked up with a deep frown. "That's enough of that, Kyle. We
have a guest today."
"Only jokin,' man." Buford looked away, his reddish blue eyes
scanning the others for approval.
"We don't joke like that here," Angus snapped. "You're new, but you
know better. If you wouldn't say it in front of a C.O., you don't
say it here. Please apologize to our guest." "That's okay," Nat
interjected, wanting it to be over. "It's all right."
"Ready to start then?"
No way. "Sure." Nat stepped forward as Angus stood aside,
setting her accordion file on the table but not feeling brave
enough to get her notes. She could teach the lesson by heart,
though it would be hard to stay on message with Buford's eyes
boring holes into her underwire.
"Well," Nat began, "thanks for having me today. Before I start, let
me ask you a question. Has anybody read The Merchant of
The inmates' expressions went uniformly slack, which she should
have expected. At the end of the table, Buford chuckled and shook
his head. Angus folded his arms and glared at him.
An inmate raised his hand. "I think we read it in high school. It's
from Shakespeare, right?"
"Yes." Nat smiled, then got a better idea. "Let me ask you this
instead: How many of you know what a shylock is?"
"You mean a shy?" the heavy inmate asked.
"Like a dude who lends you money?" another chimed in, and every
hand shot up around the table, the inmates' faces quickly
reanimating. They wanted to learn, she just had to figure
out a way to reach them.
Buford lifted his illustrated arm. "I'm hot for teacher," he said,
then burst into laughter.
"That's it." Angus stepped forward, his expression grim. "You're
outta here, and I'm making sure that—"
Suddenly a siren outside the door burst into an earsplitting alarm.
Nat jumped at the sound. Angus whirled to look out the door. Eyes
flew open around the table. The inmates started leaping out of
their chairs, shoving them and each other aside and shouting,
"Lockdown!" "Go, go, go!" "It's the lockdown siren. We gotta go!"
Inmates bolted for the door, bottlenecking at the threshold.
The announcement system burst into sound: "We are in lockdown!
Repeat, lockdown! All inmates proceed to their pods without delay!
All inmates proceed directly to their pods!" The male C.O. who had
been standing outside the room took off down the corridor.
"What's happening?" Nat yelled, beginning to panic.
"Stay with me!" Angus grabbed her hand, yanking her out of harm's
way just as the inmates rounded the table, heading for the
"Move, lady!" they shouted.
"Go, go, go!"
"We gotta get outta here!"
Suddenly Nat felt like she'd been hit by a truck. It was Kyle
Buford, barreling into her. The impact threw her backward, knocking
her wind out. She tried to get out of his way, but he was in her
face, so close she could smell his breath. Then she realized that
Buford wasn't trying to get to the door, he was trying to get to
Nat screamed as Buford wrapped his arms around her, squeezing her
tight and tackling her. She fell backwards and banged her head and
tailbone against the concrete floor. Pain arced through her head
and back, momentarily immobilizing her as Buford clambered on top
of her. Tears of fright sprang to her eyes. She couldn't catch her
breath. His body was a deadweight. She couldn't believe this was
happening. It was chaos. Everything was unfolding too fast to
Angus grabbed Buford by the shoulders, but the inmate twisted
around and elbowed him viciously in the mouth, sending him
staggering backward. Nat punched out with her fists. Buford grabbed
a clump of her hair and slammed her head into the concrete. Her
head exploded in agony. Her hands stopped punching and fell back
against the floor. Buford was on her, trying to kiss her, his
tongue thrusting into her mouth.
No, please don't.
Nat flailed out but couldn't stay conscious. The siren sounded far
away. The loudspeaker announcement blared from another place and
time. Angus grabbed Buford again, but the inmate threw himself back
down on Nat, covering her like a mad dog, clawing her shirt
Buford reached her bra and grabbed her breasts. She hit him but
then went weak. Her head thundered. She couldn't stay awake. She
couldn't stop him. The room went dark.